PHNOM PENH (AP) — A labor union leader who led a long-running strike against Cambodia’s largest casino was sentenced to two years in jail on Thursday for incitement to commit a felony, while eight other union members received lower sentences that did not include time behind bars.
Chhim Sithar, president of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, has been organizing a strike against mass layoffs and accused union-busting at the NagaWorld casino in Phnom Penh since December 2021. She was found guilty of orchestrating a January 2022 demonstration of almost 400 other fired employees seeking to be rehired.
In late 2021, NagaWorld laid off 373 employees due to financial difficulties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
NagaWorld is owned by a firm run by Malaysian billionaire Chen Lip Keong’s family. His company was granted a casino license in 1994, and the site has since grown into a massive integrated hotel-casino entertainment complex.
Labor union activities are not uncommon in Cambodia, however they mainly occur at enterprises in remote districts or in industrial estates in other provinces. The NagaWorld workers’ protest in the capital was extremely high-profile, drawing police response that was often violent.
Judge Soeung Chakriya of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced five of Chhim Sithar’s co-defendants on the same charge to one-and-a-half year provisional prison terms each, granting them freedom on the condition that they appear before the court or other authorities whenever summoned. Three other offenders were sentenced to one year in prison with their sentences suspended.
Chhim Sithar, dressed in an orange prison uniform, appeared healthy and relaxed as he awaited the judgement. She told The Associated Press about the court hearing when asked about it. “Yes, I am aware that the court will convict and sentence me, and I will, of course, appeal.”
“I will file an appeal because I cannot accept the verdict and I want the international community to be aware of our struggle,” she explained.
The verdict comes as Cambodia prepares for a national election in July that will almost certainly restore to power Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, which has ruled the country for 38 years with scant tolerance for opposition.
The opposition Candlelight Party, the only group offering a viable challenge to the ruling party, is appealing a verdict that it cannot run in the elections due to a lack of required credentials.
On Monday, three members of a Cambodian land rights organization and a researcher were charged with plotting against the state and incitement to commit a felony after the government accused them of plotting to incite a peasant revolution by teaching farmers about the rich-poor divide. They could face up to 12 years in prison if convicted on both counts.
Prior to the 2019 general election, Hun Sen’s government conducted a similar crackdown on opponents and critics.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions all urged for Chhim Sithar’s convictions to be overturned and his release.
“The convictions of Chhim Sithar and others is a blatant attack on unions and workers fighting for their fundamental rights,” said Montse Ferrer, interim deputy regional director for research at Amnesty International. “This verdict serves as a reminder that the Cambodian government would rather side with corporations than protect the rights of its people.”
Dismissed According to Am Sam Ath, operations director of local rights group Licadho, NagaWorld workers continue to demonstrate every weekend in support of their strike.
According to the Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, 249 fired workers received compensation under labor law and dropped their requests in December, but 124 are still challenging their dismissal, and the ministry will continue negotiating with them.